I first came into contact with a Bhutanese just over a decade ago. It’s a tiny country that does not have television, its ambassador then said.
We were 21 journalists from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, Europe, the Soviet region, and the Caribbean unleashed on the vast Indian landscape of New Delhi: hostel rules in the largest democracy of the world prohibited our venturing outside the city without sound induction in the operations of its entrenched and wearisome bureaucratic traditions. Some of us were from places some of us had, until then, never heard of before, like Palau, Bhutan, Lithuania, Mongolia and Kazakhstan (just like most had not heard of my islands, Trinidad and Tobago).
No television! It was a casual statement, but hung like a bombshell that shocked as a notion that was so difficult to wrap our heads around. A place without television must be a dark place indeed!
Well not exactly without television, he later modified his statement. Officially, television was not allowed, but people smuggled in television sets and VCRs and movies. That bit of information helped modify images I had conjured of deprived Bhutanese sitting around in unlit monastery-like living spaces after dinner, staring into the impenetrable darkness between and around them.
Bhutan, we came to understand, was hardly a dark place. In fact, it might very well have been the paradise of knowledge and contentment - the Shangri La - of James Hilton’s Lost Horizons.
A couple years following that encounter, (around the same time I met the Dalai Lama in Trinidad – the second individual I had encountered from that part of the world) the Bhutanese government realised the inevitability of the invasion of modern media and commissioned a study on the potential impact of such expansion.
The study’s prime concern was the effect on Gross National Happiness, an obvious defiance of the more materialistic outlook of nation’s who put stock in Gross National Product.
Among other things, the study found 200 “websites in Bhutan in English”– about the same number of “contemporary books by Bhutanese,” an indication of the rapidity of the spread of new media in this secluded society.
Our fellow journalist from Bhutan worked with the state-owned newspaper; the other media in Bhutan was the state-owned radio. It was not unlike the countries of others in our group – Iraq, Nigeria, Mongolia, all of whom jealously guarded the image of their media organisations as symbols of their democracy, despite being under the government’s thumb; a concept we shirk at in our westend of the world. It was a difficult concept to for me to grasp, indoctrinated as I was in the ideologies and doctrines driven by my western upbringing, working in private enterprise and its media, and its role in augmentation of the Gross National Product.
Sometimes in the classroom, but mainly at our post-dinner gatherings when we tried to wash down difficult-to-digest meals with carafes of conversations, came unforeseen missiles to preconceptions from western conditioning of what constitutes freedom of the press. They usually began in lighthearted camaraderic banter, but easily turned into heated debates on the nature of press freedoms and democracies in our various contexts – from those with little or wholly-owned government media, to those with mainly privately owned, with some state-owned, media, which were generally treated as part of the not-yet-mutated organism of the evolving body politic; a shadow of the less enlightened times.
Those conversations and interactions in fact inadvertently worked on me to reexamine till-then-firmly-held-notions of democracy and our role as media practitioners in it; conditioned, as I came to understand, so much by the environment from whence I came and conditioned, too, to regard environments other than our own with disdain.
What emerged was a new panorama - of a world of variegated democracies and media, as even those whom we thought were victims of supreme dictatorships were prepared to defend the validity of the kind of media institution of which they were part and the brand of journalism they practiced; just as those of us from more private media environments shudder at the thought of government control or involvement.
For me, from a small island in the Americas which like Shakespeare’s Caliban, got its language from successive masters, whose ancestors in a nebulous buried distant past of four, five, six or seven generations ago would have called India or Africa or China or Syria or Europe home, it felt like an alien landing. It meant a dawning of how much ideology one unquestioningly absorbs and accepts from one’s place of birth, and it makes the benchmark by which one assesses others, and it became, too, a journey in self-discovery.
For example, Vietnam became more than a word usually spoke of in the context of “the Vietnam War”. We learnt it was also a place with durable and portable dried foods which its four fellows “smuggled” into our hostel and which when touched water, turned into delicious finger-biting meals that soothed the turbulence wrought on our stomachs by too-spicy Indian food.
And it was, like the other countries we had not heard of before, a place that had media in it.
It is both this kind of informal knowledge zone of vaster and more immense proportions than a classroom and the opportunity to interact and learn about the strangers around us in a fellowship of many, many more than just the 21 ‘fellows’ that we were, that new media offers – an opportunity to meet and exchange experiences and ideas with a vibrant and virtual world of peoples, cultures and experiences and media types and operations.
But how open are we to the full possibilities and potential of the world of new media when we pigeon-hole ourselves into like-minded fan clubs and groups that may be only good for support, solidarity, and reinforcement of our often too limited world views that block out the more panoramic multispectrum of a full-flighted bird’s eye view? The answer would define the extent to which we have evolved a truly global media.
Dr. Kris Rampersad - development analysis, trainer and facilitator in media, gender and culture